The Rogue and the Foolhardy
The sky was spinning, angry red stinging at his fragile eyes. He heard the thudding of men running and falling around him; he couldn’t remember where he was or how he got there. He tried to get up, rolled onto his left side and used his hand as support. He looked at it, all a blur of white and red, heard something crack in his wrist and fell back down, felt the ground kick his ribs as he landed. He cursed to himself, tried to shout, yet all he heard was a wheeze drowned by the cries of battle. He looked at the sky again and saw some leaves and branches, obscure black pillars moving swiftly around him. One of them stopped, bent down and looked at him in the mud. He heard some kind of booming at his eardrums, neatly contrasted by the sharp ringing in his ears. He tried to remember how ‘What?’ sounded like, gave up in the next three seconds and blurted it out. He felt something get under his back and legs, then got flung upwards by the big pillar next to him, which he could only guess was a man, possibly a comrade of sorts. He tried to lift his head, grimaced as his neck muscles gave out and his throat ached, decided to let it limp to the side and fell into a perfectly comfortable coma.
‘Wakey, wakey, Aleksander. Your first day of hell starts here.’ Valcus voice was annoying, sharp in his ears. ‘You’ll get dressed, eat and do whatever you want for the first hour of the day, but after that…’ the High Commander said, raising a clenched, white-gloved fist ‘You’re mine.’ He had a smirk of superiority on his face, the one Aleksander was holding back all his might not to punch. ‘Understood?’
‘Excellent. Now, I must attend to my actually important matters, so be a good boy and don’t make a fuss. I’ll have Blind here accompany you. I’ve employed him a month ago, so don’t be hard on him, he’s just a servant.’
Valcus’s loud and proud steps clanked against the marble floor, annoying Aleksander to the brim. ‘You think me some sort of murderer?’
‘I’d rather go with delinquent. After all, I didn’t bring you here for your good manners, did I? Or should I just let you pick pockets in that dirty town you call… well, called home?’
‘I don’t take much a likin’ to you, like all else you ain’t bribed yet.’
‘You have a venomous mouth, but I say you shut it before I change my mind on being lenient with you.’ Valcus grimaced, turning around and stepping towards Aleksander, his hands furiously waving in the air as he spoke. ‘The truth is I don’t care if you don’t like me. I don’t care if you hate me. All that matters is that I will make you like me.’ He turned on his heel and swiftly walked to the exit. ‘Well, at least obey me.’
As he closed the heavy, black-wood door behind him, Aleksander heard a muffled ‘Oh, Blind, how wonderful! You’re just in time. Come here, this…’ Valcus said, turning towards Aleksander with a wide smile on his face, ‘Is the man that I want you to meet.’
‘H-hello,’ the butler said.
‘This here is Blind,’ Valcus started saying, but the man cut him off.
‘It’s not pronounced ‘blind’ like you would of a blind man, it’s like you would say ‘bleed’.’
‘Well, whatever,’ the High Commander flicked his arm in the air ‘It’s all the same. In any case, play nice with each other. If there’s anything wrong, I would appreciate it if you told me.’
‘Yes Sir,’ Blind said.
The remaining two in the room looked at each other, wearily. Blind looked up and down the place, with quick and nervous glances towards Aleksander.
‘I don’t bite,’ Aleksander said. ‘Where you from?’
‘Don’t think this’ll make me look over mistakes you make on purpose.’
‘I know. Can’t a man spark up conversation these days?’
Blind sighed ‘I’m from Viondril. I came because I needed a job and I’ve heard from a friend who visits here often that there’s a spot available for staff, so I applied.’ He looked around ‘Quite the big place, this.’
‘I’ve noticed. I’m from ‘ere, a few towns south. Apparently people weren’t too stoked when they found out I’d been stealing from ‘em, so I got detained. Valcus said that he saw potential in me so he took me in. Boring, huh?’
‘Not really. How was your family like?’
‘Like any other one in Nourthin, if I must be completely honest. Dad left every early mornin’ and came back late night, with mom makin’ food and clothes and such. Housework. How ‘bout you? You seem like you’re a tad too young to work.’
‘Does that matter? We have our own ways of making a living.’
‘I guess so. Shouldn’t have asked, my bad.’
‘It’s alright. I don’t know my parents, but I used to live in a Church. They said that after I finish working here they’ll want me back. I’ve heard them say things like ‘we can’t let him go’ sometimes when I was faking to be asleep.’
‘That’s weird. Them Churches are weird, never trusted ‘em.’
Blind snickered. ‘Nice accent.’
‘Nice name,’ Aleksander retorted. ‘How’s it really pronounced anyway?’
‘Now try to add an ‘n before the ‘d’.’
‘It’s gotta be a pain for people to say it wrong.’
‘I’ve gotten used to it. I’m thinking of changing my name into something more common.’
‘I don’t see the point in that. I think that everyone should have at least –I dunno- something unique to show the rest. A name’s one of ‘em.’
Blind thought about it, then, with a smile, said:
‘You’re right. Thanks, Aleksander. Can I call you Aleks for short?’
That was the beginning of the three years spent training and coexisting with people in the Palace. Soon after, Valcus held a speech after announcing the news of Aleksander’s training.
‘I promise that I will do everything in my power to turn that boy into a mighty fine example of the power of honour!’
He glanced up from the Badge of Honour, which felt remarkably light and cool in his hand, towards Bras, who approached to join him beneath the cool shade. ‘Who’d have thunk the pickpocket would finalleh turn it ‘round and earn such a prestigious medal, eh?’ he said as he slapped Aleksander across the shoulder. ‘Bet your pops would be proud to welcome you back home now.’
‘Maybe, maybe. But it’s only a token, nothing to the riches I’ll win in the future.’
‘Shiny, though, eh?’ he said, examining his own badge, flicking it into the air, like a coin, and catching it.
‘Yes, yes it is.’ the sun was getting into his blue eyes, and he had to hold up his arm to block it. His white badge made out of a metal, like platinum. It had a sword inscribed into it, and onto the blade, the letter ‘A.’
‘A littul bird told me that you got it for swordsmanship.’ He threw the last word out of his big mouth like a rock into a wall. ‘Iz that true?’
‘Heh, indeed. Your bird,’ Aleksander said, looking at Valcus ‘Was right.’
After a short pause, Bras said ‘Oh, com on! Aren’t ye gonna ask what I got it fo’?’
‘For your ability to swing a hammer so hard it breaks rocks?’
‘Be careful. If ya mess with my hammer, ya’ll be the rock I’ll be breakin.’ After noticing his friend being half concerned, Bras slapped Aleksander’s back, making him almost fall ‘You know we’re best comrades, aye? I’d never hurt ya.’
The younger man smirked. ‘Of course, Bras. We’re allies forever, right?’ he said, extending his arm for a fist bump. ‘Always allies. No matter what,’ Bras didn’t leave his friend hanging.
‘Ye’ best not forget the promise.’
‘Oh… yes. Yes, indeed. The promise.’ I have no damn idea what he might be talking about.
Bras looked at Aleksander with a deep frown, eyebrows burrowed like there was a river trying to get in his big, bulging eyes. ‘I got ye. I got ye’ good, now.’
‘Bras, I’m sorry. I forgot, I-’
‘There was no bloody promise,’ he bellowed, started to laugh so violently Aleksander thought he might attract everyone’s attention. It wasn’t like anyone had a word to say about it either way, considering Bras’ appearance. He remembered the war, and remembered it well. Remembered seeing bodies getting flung left and right because of his stupidly large hammer. He could remember it day in and day out. Aleksander looked at his left arm, unbuttoned his cuff and put his right hand inside to feel his burning scar. He had some trouble getting his thin fingers in, touched the wound with his forefinger and let out a sound like water dumped on hot coals after camping at night. Bras had stopped before Aleksander managed to button up his top, wiped a tear or two from his round cheeks and let out a big breath to calm himself down. The only two ways to calm down Bras is to either have him drink a lifetime’s supply of water or let him meditate by slowly inhaling and exhaling. He felt someone’s palm on his shoulder, turned around and saw Blind proudly showing his wide grin. How could I forget? He got promoted to the High Commander’s personal aide. At this point everything from the Palace has had enough of his blabbering, probably even the animals down by the pen.
‘Greetings, gentlemen. How are you fairing this wonderful Monday morning?’
Even his manner of speech makes me want to throw up. God knows how the stones of the Palace didn’t up and split into a big chasm as he walked on the fifth floor’s balcony.
‘Can’t say I’m too pleased,’ Bras’ voice boomed from behind. ‘What are ye’ even doin’ out ‘ere?’
‘Well, evidently, I am here to bid farewell to our High Commander.’
‘Yer lips had enough of his arse?’
‘It does not seem fair that you are the one talking, Mister Bras. Are you not Valcus’ closest Known Soldier? Yet I can’t help but think it the same as being the most obedient pet.’
‘Why you littul…’
‘That’s all we need for now, people. Be calm, we wouldn’t want to be escorted out of here and ruin Valcus’ final moment of glory, would we?’ The two others looked at each other with discontent, Aleksander feeling like he was the pillar keeping up a shaky, falling pile of swords on top of his head. ‘Are we children still? Must I remind you both of what would have happened had I not intervened when the Palace was under siege? How quickly people forget.’ He hoped to angels he sounded mad and imposing enough for it to have any effect.
‘Fine, but this is the last time I am bowing to that insignificant ‘promise’ you forced us to agree to. It’s a good thing you both will be leaving with Valcus. Especially you, fat man, good for nothing. I would have you- No, what are you doing? Let go of me!’
Bras picked Blind up with both hands, flung him twenty meters into a tree, knocking the air out of Blind’s lungs. He started approaching the coughing, hyperventilating man on the ground, picked him up, raised a fist that met the tree behind him, sent splinters flying.
‘Now you listen to me, ya’ filtheh brat. Mouthin’ off to me ain’t gonna cause no pain, ‘member it.’ He let Blind fall on his ass, turned around with a smile and began walking towards the crowd of onlookers. ‘What? There any of ya’ll who wants sum?’ as everyone muttered to themselves and turned around, Aleksander heard a quiet ‘Thought so.’
‘You should try to refrain from doing that more. We’re representing the High Commander after all. For as much as I used to hate him, I think he’s deserved my respect twofold. Without him, Nourthin would be no more.’
‘Yer sayin’ the truth, but it’s not like he was tha’ one goin’ out there and slashin’ and crushin’ enemies.’
Aleksander felt the cold wind at his neck, lifted his collar and brushed the white hair out of his face, the trumpets that signalled Valcus’s arrival started being heard. He edged closer to Bras, resting his left arm around his friend’s broad shoulders.
‘Makes me think of his call to arms.’
‘Ye’. Good times, those.’
At only eight months into Aleksander’s arduous training, a large group of bandits from Arolia were slaughtering their way into Viondril. They had managed to defeat Viondril’s army due to the fact that they were the main power keeping the Slithers at bay. It made it so they couldn’t handle pressure from both of the attacks and it lead to Viondril becoming full of bandits, looters and monsters. Naturally, bandits don’t give up unless they’re dead. Overconfident in their strength due to the lucky victory onto Viondril, they decided to press on towards Nourthin.
The attacks upon the thick, gray walls were getting worse by the day, with the guards trying their best to not kill, but only harm their enemies. Soldiers in shining armours wielding sharpened swords, archers lighting the tips of the arrows on fire, filling the top of the walls from tower to tower, all under the command of the best Known Soldiers. These were the highest ranked men, loyal only to their armies and the High Commander. Each and every Known Soldier was bound to honour and follow their leader, accompanying them through their journeys, even if they were to step down from the affairs of the country. The casualties due to the merciless bandits rose far beyond expectations, and High Commander Valcus couldn’t afford to get complacent about deciding his strategy. After the first week of the siege, he discussed his plans with the person he could trust most, the first of the Known Soldiers.
‘What should I do?’ Valcus said, more to himself, as he was pacing few strides back and forth on the marble floor. It was decorated with various precious stones of different colours, his white slippers squeaking with every step.
‘Tell me!’ he shouted, his gravelly voice echoing through the room, as he crashed onto his bed. He was desperately holding his head in his hands, eyes red from the lack of sleep. His long, curly hair was covering his face up to his lips, his bright, white teeth could be seen as he was muttering something.
‘Your Highness, I’m completely sure that yer generous mercy was taken full advantage of by the bandits. Do not allow this to go any further, I say!’
‘I do appreciate your trying to control your accent while addressing me, but stop. I’ve mentioned before that you mustn’t regard me as your ruler, but as your once fellow comrade.’
‘Ye, ye have, but it’s in me honour. In any case tho’, you should hurry up and command tha attack.’
He knew his advisor was being straightforward, however, such is the way during wars. Nothing but a bunch of strategies and commands, followed shortly by brief bursts of madness. ‘I’ve trusted your judgment before and I shall do so now too,’ Valcus said as he lifted himself up, head held high, then looked sideways at his friend. ‘I hope that you wouldn’t mind if I assign you to a special squad.’
‘I stand ta serve an obey.’
And so, the decision to drive the enemies back had been made. It only took a day for news to get from the middle of the country to the front lines, giving the soldiers permission to kill. They would be rewarded for their efforts accordingly, as long as they wouldn’t perish. After all, the enemies weren’t something to be scoffed at. The bandits were strong and well armed and the Slithers were swift and agile. It was a stroke of luck for the two forces to not cooperate.
Then again, a pairing between royalty only to money and brute, stupid force hasn’t been unheard of. Valcus had made all the preparations needed.
The army was organized into groups of seven. Five front fighters and two long range shooters. It was a rarity for Mages to appear anywhere in the world, especially in Nourthin. There was an Ulrag, a Mage, a Maudrin, the rest three being from Nourthin. As he entered their housing, he heard the giant say:
‘Ey! You must be our second front line fighter. I’ll be right alongside ye’.’ The Ulrag extended his arm ‘Brasol. You can call me Bras though.’
He shook his hand ‘Aleksander.’ So, Ulrag’s weren’t nicknamed ‘The Giants of the World’ without a reason. They weren’t indeed. Bras was about forty centimetres taller than Aleksander, putting him at a colossal two hundred and… twenty centimetres maybe.
After his new comrade returned to his bed, Aleksander started looking around the room, catching the glimpse of the Mage. He was quite short and thin as a rail, with pale skin and yellow eyes.
‘If you’ll be nice, I’ll make sure your blade is extra sharp,’ he said, after noticing Aleksander staring at him. He smiled and winked with his left eye, his right eye missing, or at least covered by a big red bandage.
‘I’ll make sure to remember that.’ After looking around the room, he decided he needed to do something to break the metaphorical ice.
‘I know this isn’t the usual, but we should get to know each other,’ he said with an air of cockiness. ‘After all, we’re going to fight together. Being the one that proposed this, I’ll go first. My name is Aleksander. I have been training as a swordsman with the High Commander’s guards for eight months now. I am better at ducking and slashing instead of facing an enemy head on. Agility is my strong suit, you could say, while brute strength, not so much.’
Oh, those good old moments, he thought to himself. Back in the day when I couldn’t kill something with a normal swing. I was so frail, but oh so slippery, like a snake.
‘Very well, lad,’ Bras’s voice was heard. ‘I am quite the opposite of Aleksander here and I’ll fulfil my duty of taking on the larger guys. It is my bad if I get too into it. We Ulrags are known for our love of war,’ he laughed. ‘I’m not that good at flankin or anythin’, after all,’ he continued, slapping his belly ‘I’m not suited for it.’
After a sigh, the Mage stepped in the middle of the room. ‘Name’s Eze. I’m not what you’d expect from a Mage, all shiny lights, fireballs, and hurricanes,’ he said, motioning with his right hand in a spinning motion
‘I’m here to make sure you guys don’t die and that you cut down more and more of the bad guys. I do know a bit of offensive magic, but let’s hope it doesn’t get to that point. Other than that, I am kind of useless if fighting face to face, so do try to protect me if you can.’
The fourth one was the arbalest user. ‘I’m Shana. I kill from long distance. Leave their back lines to me and it will be okay. Also, I’m not that good at speaking Common. I’m good at bandaging wounds too, so if you have any I’ll do my best to help. Thank you.’
Looking at her from close up, Aleksander noticed that she was limping a bit with her left leg. For someone that needs to stay in place while shooting, it won’t be a problem.
A thing he found strange was that she used the word Common. Every country spoke their own language. However, everyone was taught Common, which was the set language that all the High Commanders agreed on using as an international language. After hearing the last three give out their speeches, they all decided to rest for the days ahead.
Prepared for his first day into the fray of battle, Aleksander did some practice swings with his sword early in the morning. It was gifted by High Commander Valcus himself. On the handle, it had written: ‘For Honour and Peace.’ It was about 60 centimetres long, extremely sharp. He could imagine the skin of his foes peeling off after every strike. It was invigorating and scary at the same time, realizing that their swords would do the same in case he would get caught by their bite, like a shark’s teeth, cutting through the meat of its prey.
‘Ready to bash sum skulls in?’ Bras said from behind, startling Aleksander.
‘You know, for that size, you’re pretty sneaky.’
‘Haha! That must be a compliment if it’s coming from ye’. I’ve heard you’re quite the rogue yourself,’ he said, motioning with his eyebrows.
This made Aleksander roll his eyes. ‘Unfortunately, it doesn’t bring any advantages with the girls.’
‘Oooh, a shame, lad. You’re young tho’, so no worries.’
‘How old are you? I’m only eighteen.’
‘Eighteen? And at war? Boy, grandpa Valcus must trust you.’
‘He’s old, my nickname for him. My parents used to know him, ’cause he came to Ulrag once. I’m twenty-five. Single too.’
‘Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll find a woman as…’
‘As?’ Bras asked, lowering his face, bringing it an arm’s length from Aleksander’s face.
‘As strong and as good-willed as you!’
‘Maybeh’. I can’t say no to that, can ‘I?’ After a short pause, he continued ‘I’ve a feelin that you didn’t ‘ave tha best treatment as a kid.’
Aleksander tried to oppose this, but his ally was right.
‘Yeah, you could say that. How about you?’ Getting a better look at him, he didn’t seem that different from the other people he had met in his life, except for his size, of course. He had short, black hair and chocolaty, warm eyes. His smile revealed few yellow teeth. I guess no one that’s still alive has addressed that issue. All in all, Aleksander guessed that he wouldn’t mind having him as a companion.
‘Me? I chopped down trees and kept fightin’ anyone I could, to see how many arses I’d get to give a kickin to. ‘Ave you heard of the Arenas of Ulrag, boy?’
‘Yeah, news travels fast here. I’ve heard people fight in some kind of stadium for money. A huge amount. What of it?’
Bras’s mind seemed to wander off for a second, looking towards the red ball inching over the hill before them. Quite the sight, the sunrise in Nourthin. Yellows and reds sprouted over the horizon and onto the always gray leaves of the trees, springing off the blue lakes surrounded by the small, red-brick homes of the city folk. Much like nature’s definition of a firework show.
‘I used ta be in tha top ten,’ he responded, raising his closed fist and then lowering it slowly.
‘Though lower ‘an tha best five, so I never got to fight ’em. Would have been nice though.’
‘Why did you stop?’ Aleksander asked, taking a look at this sword one last time before sheathing it.
‘I enrolled in tha army. I thought that more opponents means a higha chance of fightin’, plus, I’m more of a destructive type than a one on one, like ye’. I’ll share some stories with ye later, but now I should go and wake up tha othas’.’
‘You do that,’ Aleksander said, raising his uniform’s collar as he felt the morning breeze pass him. Speaking honestly, being able to see the battlefield from such a high point was making him feel like somewhat of a legendary fighter.
One day, I will be one.
‘Such memories, ain’t they?’ Bras interrupted Aleksander’s train of thought.
‘Oh, so you can read minds now?’ The two laughed.
Sharing the final laughs before High Commander Valcus’s speech, they hugged, patting each other on the back.